November 30, 2005
Ted Nelson is giving a talk to about twenty people at the Oxford Internet Institute. (I just gave a talk on taxonomy and the mmiscellaneous.) Ted invented the word “hypertext” and for many years worked on the Xanadu project, a hyperlinked web that gains some advantages over the Web by allowing a degree of centralization. [What follows are the notes I took while Ted was talking. They are quite approximate, and probably dead wrong in spots.]
He talks about the great British engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who wanted the width of RR tracks to be set at the optimally safe distance but lost to the economic interests of the carriage makers. He likewise talks about Nikola Tesla “who invented the modern world,” including the electrical grid. Tesla wanted to give free electricity to everyone in the world by “charging up the electrical field of the planet so that anyone with a coil could just tap off what they like.” Westinghouse stopped backing him as a result of this. “What’s the business model?” Finally, he talks about Wernher von Braun vs. Chuck Yeager. Yeager gets credit for breaking the sound barrier, although (says Nelson) a British pilot preceded him. Nelson says that Yeager later said “I could have gone orbital, but they told me not to.” This was in 1947. Why did we hold Yeager back, he asks. Because, von Braun felt that if he let a little plane got orbital instead of large rockets, it would disrupt his political agenda. Von Braun shared Heinlein’s vision of colonizing space. (Ted says this story is “partially conjectural.”)
The point: There are hidden agendas in most technological decisions. He asks why programs insist on us not entering spaces or hyphens into phone numbers. “The real technical reason is the programmer is a jerk.” The engineer, says Ted, passively-aggressively requires the user to do something “rigorous.” This is the techie mentality at its worst. Software is too important to be left to the techies; they need an “overarching vision.” The reason computer games are so much better than office software is that the people who create computer games love to play games while the people who make office software “don’t give a shit.”
“Today’s computer world is based on techie misunderstandings of human thought and human life.”
He talks about Doug Engelbart who shares Ted’s view that “the current computer world is absolutely lousy.” He lays this primarily at the foot of Xerox PARC’s assumption that the computer GUI ought to imitate paper. Rather, it should enable rapidly changing links among the thousands among ideas and scraps. He shows some great examples of French literary works (e.g., Victor Hugo) literally cut and pasted together. But Xerox PARC called a simple hide and show operation “cut and paste,” thus making it harder to do complex rearrangement of pieces.
From the ’60s, Ted has had the idea that we should have a hypertext world in which anyone can publish, with automatic payment to the authors. “For the last 45 years, I’ve been trying to realize this design vision.” He focuses on the data side because it requires managing vast numbers of links, and paying the rights holders. “I want to make it possible for everything to be remixed.” (Xanadu is now called “Transliterature.”)
His point overall: The computer world is not technologically determined. It is an accident. We can thus change its basic premises.
Q: You are wrong to think that the market is a conspiracy against good ideas, and that freedom is being constrained by regulation and standardization. On the contrary, some regulation results in a greater good.
A: The market hasn’t had a chance for anything else.
Q: You’re like the techies you don’t like. You offer us ideas we should like better. E.g., I like editing on wysiwyg, paper-emulating word processors. And bad sw often results from the people specifying it not really knowing what they want.
I do believe in the great designer theory – Buckminister Fuller, Frank Lloyd Wright, Orson Welles…
Q: The problem is with the market itself, which results in tech gear being created for a dollar day in China. You should be attacking the market, not the techies.
I got to go to lunch with Ted. Between the noodles he demo’ed ZigZag, which is rather hard for us spatially-impaired to explain. But, here goes. It’s a database designed to permit multidimensional views of information. So, if you feed it information about the line of British royalty, you can view the info by, say, date, and it will arrange itself visually on the screen appropriately. Ask to see familial relations, and it will suitably rearrange itself. It is very much not a row-and-column view, a view Ted finds only occasionally suitable to the data. I think (but my spatial impairment keeps me from knowing for sure) that this would be a cool tool for visualizing facets.